How to Talk about Picture Books

In case we don’t say it enough, we here at Calling Caldecott are immensely grateful to all of the guest posters who visit and write about picture books. We enjoy reading their posts and appreciate their thoughtful contributions. We love it when someone points out something in a picture book we hadn’t noticed before.

We also appreciate the willingness of our guest posters to contribute, because it can be intimidating to evaluate a picture book. For many of us who got into children's books because we love words, talking about art — and the ways text and art play with each other in picture books — can be challenging. And it can take us out of our comfort zones.

Recently, one of our guest posters here at Calling Caldecott told us that they found the late Robin Smith’s detailed yet no-nonsense 2013 post, “How to read a picture book, the Caldecott edition” tremendously helpful to read before writing her own post.

We have referenced that post many times ourselves, and we've often sent others to read it. Thank you, dear Robin. We miss you.

What about you, our readers? Do you find talking about art harder than talking about text? Which resources do you depend on for help evaluating picture books? And once you feel confident doing so, what are the kinds of things you look for when reading picture books? What are the elements of a picture book that make it rise to the top for you?

Martha V. Parravano and Julie Danielson
Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog. Julie Danielson, co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog, writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
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Bina Williams

When I was lucky enough to serve on the 2003 Caldecott Committee, the brilliant Dilys Evans came to speak to us about evaluating picture books. The thing that has always stayed with me is this: Dilys showed us a picture from John Updike's A Child's Calendar, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. On the January page, left side, is a small image of children look down a sledding hill towards a snow covered (New Englandy) village. Dilys said to us, "Can you feel the breeze?" and that became our mantra when we looked at illustrations. (That picture is also on the cover....) Real committee and Calling Caldecott committee and mock committees near and far...feel the breeze! And enjoy the sled ride down the hill while you are at it!

Posted : Dec 11, 2020 12:35

Susan Dailey

I read the picture book "What Do Illustrators Do? by Eileen Christelow many years ago. It was eye-opening for me! It gave me insight on how many decisions illustrators have to make to create a picture book. I've even shared it with participants in Mock Caldecott workshops. Simple, but very informative. Uri Shulevitz's "Writing with Picture" was another eye-opener. And, like others, I refer to Robin's posts often. She had an amazing gift of making her writing entertaining and accessible!

Posted : Nov 13, 2020 12:14

Rachel Payne

Yes, asking children, as others have mentioned, is key! As someone who works in early childhood, it can be difficult to get clearly articulate feedback from toddlers and 3-4-year-olds (although they can surprise you!). I sometimes looked for eye contact, which researchers often use in early childhood studies. What's holding a child's gaze? That is the first way many of us show engagement and interest. So don't rush through the illustrations when you read aloud with the very young. Hold things there for a couple of breaths. And if there are wordless spreads, hang out a bit longer, which may seem counterintuitive.

Posted : Nov 12, 2020 04:29

Dean Schneider

I agree, Lisa. It's important for committee members to read aloud favorite books to young children, to hear the books and see the reactions. I did this when I was on the committee, and so did Robin (on Caldecott, Geisel, and other committees). It's not that it's a popularity contest, and sometimes kids love perfectly silly books, but it ought to make a difference when children respond well to a truly good book. I remember how much fun it was to read aloud THE WOLF, THE DUCK & THE MOUSE. It didn't win a Caldecott, but it is such a good book and a great read-aloud, and was the pick for the Robin Smith Picture Book Prize that year. (Important to remember that lots of great books don't win prizes.)

Posted : Nov 12, 2020 02:04

Lisa Osterman

Thank you for always highlighting and promoting amazing picture books! For me, there are no better critics than children. I might think a book is headed toward a Caldecott, but unless it receives rave reviews from my second graders, it won’t garner the same level of respect. When I shared Ouside In as a read aloud recently, I could feel the books Caldecott qualities shining as I noticed the expressions on the young faces sitting in front of me. I could hear the books impact as kids shared thinking and returned to the book again and again to pour over the illustrations. Child voices need to be part of the Caldecott decision!

Posted : Nov 11, 2020 08:34

Jules Danielson

Such a good point, Lisa. What did they love about OUTSIDE IN? (I'd love to know!)

Posted : Nov 11, 2020 08:34

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